With November now less than a year away, the Republicans’ tragedy is that Donald Trump is still the closest they have come to answering the question that wicked Steve Bannon started posing half a decade ago. Their old winning formula, Ronald Reagan’s “three-legged stool” of economic liberalism, a nod to social conservatism and a willingness to confront America’s enemies abroad, no longer did the trick. But what would?
Straightforward adoption of Bannon’s solution–a rough-edged nationalism aimed at winning over working class whites– would have led to electoral disaster. But Trump, helped along by the dubious magic of celebrity, represented enough to prevail in the primaries despite the best that the Republican establishment could throw at him. And then to just about everyone’s surprise (except, some say, Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, who knew his Midwest) he won. The importance of white working class support has been exaggerated, but not in that part of the world. Trump lost the popular vote, but success in a handful of states, sometimes by minuscule margins, (11,000 in Michigan, 44,000 in Pennsylvania and, in Wisconsin, a state where Hillary Clinton failed to campaign, 23,000 ) was enough to hand him the job.
Trump’s ability to stir up opposition, by word, by deed, by tweet and by being himself should worry Republicans.
To have won in such a way–and against such a weak candidate–was not an ideal launch pad for the re-election bid to come. Under the circumstances, and with the benefit of a Republican majority in both House and Senate in his first two years, Trump might have been expected to govern in a manner designed to broaden his base. That’s not what he did, in style or in substance, and the GOP paid the price in the midterms. While a president’s first midterm elections are often a trial, 2018’s were an unusually blunt warning of turbulence ahead.
Despite a respectably growing economy, the Republicans lost control of the House. More ominously still for the GOP, turnout jumped to over 50 per cent (about ten percentage points above the midterm norm). This surge was not confined to Democrats, but the dramatically increased participation by segments of the population opposed to Trump–notably Latinos and the young (70 per cent of both groups are estimated to have voted Democratic)– not known for showing up for midterms was striking. Trump’s ability to stir up opposition, by word, by deed, by tweet and by being himself should worry Republicans. If the swing away from the GOP among suburban voters in the 2019 off-year elections in both Virginia and Kentucky is any guide, it’s as potent as it ever was. Meanwhile, the fight over impeachment will only raise the temperature further.
Midterm losses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin rubbed salt in Republican wounds, and Democrats won’t repeat Clinton’s sin of omission in Wisconsin this year. The Democratic convention will be held in Milwaukee, not only the state’s biggest city, but one with a large African-American population. Black turnout there fell sharply in 2016 (as elsewhere: the absence of Barack Obama from the ticket took a toll). That’s something the Democrats would like to reverse, although both the midterms and the 2019 elections suggest that the chance to vote against Trump counts for less with African-Americans than the opportunity to vote for Obama.
One explanation for the GOP losing the House in 2018 was the high number of Republican incumbents who bowed out ahead of the election, at least a few of them, presumably, unable to see a future in a party turning Trump at an astonishing pace. Compared with previous presidents, Trump’s approval ratings have been dismal, often failing to break 40 per cent, yet with Republican voters, he has averaged scores in the eighties, a performance, as of December, largely unaffected by the impeachment hearings, a spectacle up to then viewed, on both sides, through a partisan lens. Republican stalwarts may not approve of all the acts in the Trump circus, but their more–what’s the word–problematic aspects were not much of a secret in 2016 and they are not much of a secret now. Nevertheless, so long as Trump delivers enough of what they voted for (frequently little more than mood music), and so long as he can keep ahead of the investigators–his failings will be overlooked.
America’s voters are less polarised than its elites, but a mounting perception (on both sides) of politics as a struggle between an irreproachable us and an irredeemable them will reinforce Republicans’ determination to stand by their man - tweets and all. For some, Trump’s repeated failure to conduct himself ‘presidentially’ may well bolster what is still his evident, if sometimes ersatz, insurgent appeal. Republicans in Washington are paying attention. Whatever their doubts, they are standing behind Trump. For his part, ego, and, probably, the fear of interminable legal harassment should he lose his job, means that Trump will not stand down. In the absence of cataclysm, he will be the nominee.
In the event of cataclysm, the party of Trump will fall with Trump. It will also be in trouble if Trump stands down even without scandal having shown him the door. The conundrum to which he was a stopgap solution remains unanswered. Until it is resolved–something that will take time, but will likely involve a significant shift leftwards in the GOP’s economic policy– nobody, neither Mitt Romney, say, nor Florida senator Marco Rubio (currently doing his best to reinvent himself as a big thinker, no easy task) nor even Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the UN and the most electable of the lot, will be able to ride to the rescue, unless, that is, the Democrats give voters no alternative.
And, whether their opponent is Trump or some last-minute substitute, they might. Many of those now battling for the Democratic nomination seemingly misunderstood Sanders’ remarkable showing in 2016. They appear to have read his rise as, primarily, a product of millennial radicalism and shaped their 2020 campaigns accordingly. But there was rather more to it than that. An over-promoted, under-informed and disingenuous crank, Sanders peddles leftist nostrums discredited half a century or more ago. But what mattered more than their details was their symbolism: they represented a clean break with the existing economic consensus–and the appetite for that is not confined to millennials. Memories of the financial crisis have not faded, and nor have its consequences, but its political impact has been both compounded and complicated by a longer-term trend–the disappearance of well-paid American manufacturing jobs, a development widely (and not entirely inaccurately) blamed on globalisation. This boosted Sanders, but, by tipping the scales in the Midwest, it took Trump, a perennial critic of globalisation, to the White House.
Even though tariffs have hurt some of his supporters, pushing back against globalisation may work well for Trump again this year, but globalisation is an issue that may soon be dwarfed by automation. Indeed, automation’s destructive effect on jobs (or concerns about it) may have contributed to Trump’s mid-western victories in 2016. With no easy fix in the offing, however, few politicians want to talk too much about this topic. An exception is Andrew Yang, an ebullient entrepreneur and philanthropist, who is running one of the more interesting campaigns for the Democratic nomination. He sees a universal basic income as part of the solution. He may be right, he may be wrong, but the idea helped his outsider campaign attract attention, a small foretaste of the political upheaval that automation is fomenting.
Sanders’s intriguingly strong run in 2016 was damaged by his inability to gain enough traction with African-Americans. He has gone some way to remedying that this time around, but, at the time of writing, he (and all the other contenders) are still trailing Joe Biden with black voters, a key constituency both numerically (they ordinarily account for 25 per cent of the Democratic primary vote) and chronologically, as may be made very clear after the early (February 29) South Carolina primary and then Super Tuesday a few days later. Momentum matters. Biden may be a seventy-seven-year-old white man, but his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president counts. More importantly, many African-Americans favour his relative moderation, not only as a virtue in itself but also on pragmatic grounds: they think that a moderate candidate will have a better chance of beating Trump in November.
For all the noise on the left they could well be right. And they are not alone in thinking so. The effort to embarrass Biden over his son’s business interests in Ukraine almost certainly reflects the Trump camp’s conviction that “Sleepy Joe” would be their most dangerous opponent. Trump’s advisers must know how narrow his base is, even without an economy that looks tired (or in the crucial Midwest distinctly sickly, thanks partly–and ironically–to the trade wars), messy impeachment hearings and the 24/7 threat of Trump being Trump.
After more than three years in office, it’s hard to see where the President has added to his support and easy to spot where he has driven it away. There are indications that white working class women are drifting to the Democrats, making a bad gender gap worse, and strengthening the case for Democrats to choose Biden. A candidate drawn from the party’s woke wing could push such voters back to Trump (Sanders, an old-style class warrior whose woke game is weak, could be a different story). Biden’s biggest risk? It may seem harsh to single him out in a field where no fewer than four septuagenarians (Warren, Biden, Bloomberg and Sanders), one of whom (Sanders) recently suffered a heart attack, are competing to take on a fifth (Trump), but there have been times when Biden has appeared–how to put it–confused, and that’s before his hours on the stump really start to pile up. Still, as I write, he continues to lead the pack.
The other marquee moderate is former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. If nominated, he could be a formidable challenger with sufficient cross-party appeal to make up (despite some desperate pandering on his part) for, to put things mildly, a lack of enthusiasm among many core Democratic constituencies. But he’s unlikely to fare well in a primary process in which left-leaning activists call the shots, something that will count more than ever this year, thanks to a change in the convention’s voting rules. ‘Super-Delegates’, the typically more pragmatic party insiders who ensured Clinton’s win over Sanders in 2016 will (except when it will make no difference) be barred from voting on the first ballot.
Biden’s African-American following gives him some protection from the wild-eyed, but if he stumbles, the left’s inbuilt advantage will mean that the most likely Democratic nominee will either be Sanders or, if primary voters want a newer brand of Kool Aid, Warren, a woke (“she/her”) Marie Antoinette, whose adventures in identity politics are unlikely to prove an asset with the wider voting public. Neither can credibly pivot back to the centre in the way that a Pete Buttigieg might just be able to pull off, and, beyond their other disadvantages, both represent a threat to the wallet serious enough to antagonise some otherwise sympathetic voters. What’s more, their plan to abolish the Electoral College is unlikely to endear them to Flyover Country, where so many of those Electoral College votes are to be found. In short, unlike Biden, they are opponents that Trump might welcome, which is not the same as saying that they would lose. Donald Trump, after all, could throw away an election in an afternoon.